HC Deb 10 November 1950 vol 480 cc1320-39

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Royle.]

2.7 p.m.

Mr. Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I suppose that those of us who attended the housing debate in this House earlier this week were impressed by the fact that, by and large, the evidence that was produced by various Members of the housing situation in the country tended to be concentrated on the urban problem. Indeed, when pleasantries, and some unpleasantries, had been exchanged across the Floor, it seemed to me that the position in the rural districts tended to be forgotten. Today I want to raise the question of the position of the smaller type of housing authority in the matter of finding reliable and suitable house building contractors.

I do not intend, for obvious reasons, to name any contractors, nor do I wish to identify any contractors with specific local authorities; but so long as the local authority remains the main instrument for carrying out the Government housing programme, so we in this House must keep a strict watch on the position of local authorities and seek to secure, by amendment or by administrative effort, that their responsibility is made easier.

The problem which, for instance, I find in my constituency is that I have five local housing authorities—the ancient City of Lichfield, the Borough of Tam-worth, the Urban District of Aldridge, the Urban District of Rugeley and the Lichfield Rural District Council. It is specifically in the matter of the two urban districts and the one rural district that I want to bring to the attention of the House the difficulty of finding the right sort of building contractor.

The sequence of events when an allocation of houses is made to a local authority is that, sites having been prepared and invitations to tender published, when the tenders are received it is normal practice to accept the lowest tender and to submit it for provisional approval to the regional office of the Ministry of Health. I think it is at that point that a lot of trouble ensues, not through any lack of forethought, but due to a weakness in the responsibility for scrutinising the financial and general stability of the contractor in question.

The position that arises when, for instance, a regional office authorises such a local authority to build 40 houses, is that, where the area is fairly large, especially a rural district area, those 40 houses may have to be dispersed over 10 or 12 villages. Therefore, the problem that the contractor has to face is very different from the problem that the contractor in an urban area has to face. There is the question of getting small quantities of materials to 12 places, there is the question of labour and transport, all of which means that the price will be higher than where the contractor can build all 40 houses in one place. I know that "tolerance" is given by regional offices of the Ministry of Health in the matter of the acceptable contract price.

Experience over the last three or four years is that the present system tends to result in contracts being approved, work being started and then, after a long interval of time, either the contractor goes bankrupt in some cases or his rate of completion slows up very seriously indeed. And may I say that, as far as the local authority is concerned, a quick bankruptcy is the lesser evil. Sometimes, after a long period of time, one has a contractor either going bankrupt or having to own up to the local authority that he cannot complete the work for some reason. There was a case in my constituency where only after four years was quite a small contract being completed, and there must have been some reason other than availability of supplies for its slow rate of completion.

The Ministry ought to reconsider this special position of rural and urban dis- trict councils. I am not happy that when permission is sought by these local authorities for provisional approval of these tenders, sufficient weight is given to the financial stability and the general stability of the contractor. I should have thought that when contractors do submit their tenders they might be obliged to disclose what other contracts they have on hand. I am prepared to believe, of course, that, in many cases, the local authority and the regional office of the Ministry of Health have a pretty shrewd idea of what the contractor has already in hand; but that is not by any means fool proof, because the contractor may go outside the regional area. In any case, as I understand it—and this is important —the onus of responsibility for judging whether a contractor is suitable or not lies with the local authority.

Probably that ought to be reconsidered. I do not know how the regional office will secure the necessary information about the contractor's finances or about what other work he has on hand, but I should have thought there are ways and means of getting that information. After all, in local government there are committees which do sit in private—estate committees perhaps—and I should have thought that, when such a matter as the suitability of a contractor was under discussion, confidential information provided by the regional office of the Ministry of Health could be discussed in similar circumstances.

There are some subsidiary matters which stem from this question. Let us take the question of supplies of materials, for example. I am informed by the clerk of one of the councils in my constituency that, in a recent contract placed for a number of houses, the council have been advised by the contractor that he will be unwilling to start work until he can be assured of supplies of cement. We have discussed the question of cement supplies and distribution a great deal in this House. I was under the impression that when the Ministry of Health approve a contract an allocation of necessary supplies is automatically arranged through the Ministry of Works, but it does not seem to be working out that way and I would like the Minister to have that position examined.

Then there is the question of co-ordination of Ministries. I understand the Minister of Health is responsible for clearing a building project with any other Ministry concerned. The average local authority takes that to mean that if provisional approval of a tender is given, or where a site is approved by the Ministry, the Ministry will contact all the other Ministers and say, "Is this all right?" Other Ministers will then give their agreement or otherwise.

This, however, does not always happen. In the village of Grindley, in Staffordshire, year after year various Ministers have put sprags in the wheel and no progress is made. The Minister also knows of the case recently where, after about three years of argument between Ministers, everybody thought that at last agreement had been reached, a gentleman known as the minerals valuer stepped in. After further correspondence, the minerals valuer has now agreed to a site 100 yards west of the proposed site he previously turned down.

I believe the attitude of the Ministry is that where other Ministries are concerned and agreement has been secured, it is not the responsibility of those other Ministries to propose an alternative; it is merely to say "Yes" or "No." I put it to the Minister that a lot of time and inconvenience could be saved if alternative suggestions were made and a more urgent attitude adopted by these other Ministries. As I think the Minister knows, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Harmar Nicholls) and myself were obliged to convene housing conferences in certain parts of our constituencies to rub the noses together—if I may use a somewhat indelicate phrase—of the Ministers concerned and the local authorities, and good results came of it.

Another matter is that, of recent months, there has been a tendency on the part of regional offices of the Ministry to give up the question of watching progress in various local authority areas. I am perfectly prepared to believe that they have not the staff, or that progress reporting or examination is not part of their job. Again, that is a matter which ought to be looked into. I cannot say how appreciative I have been of the assistance and advice given to me by a senior executive officer of the Birmingham office of the Ministry. At the same time, the responsibility and the work which falls on the shoulders of officials, and more especially on clerks of councils, is very serious indeed. The examination and scrutiny, the conversion into comprehensible language of various circulars and other dicta issued by the Ministry, and the conveying of the opinions of the councils and sub-committees to the Ministry has resulted in an enormous amount of work falling on clerks of councils. I should say that in this matter of progress more assistance should be given.

I now come to a more contentious matter, the question of tied cottage property. That is a very important matter in rural areas. I do not take the extreme view which asks for the abolition of all tied property, because I believe that there are some properties on farms where a service occupancy is necessary, such as for herdsmen and workers like that. But overwhelmingly the amount of tied cottage property is, in my view, an evil. While the law permits such property, there is nothing dishonourable in such property being owned. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that he might consider drawing to the attention of local authorities the desirability of asking councillors on these housing sub-committees to disclose their interest where they own tied cottage property.

I think there is a good deal of misunderstanding about this question of disclosure of interest. It has sometimes happened in this Parliament, and I remember it happening in the last Parliament. There is nothing dishonourable in the disclosure of a person's interest. It merely permits other people on the council or in Parliament to assess and weigh the value of the contribution to the debate of the person whose interest has been disclosed. It is a fact that owners of tied property by and large have an instinctive reaction against the building of houses which may make the occupants of existing tied cottage property more independent. I am not at all happy that the phasing of siting and house building is adequately supervised in many cases. I have a case in my constituency of a site not being prepared because two years ago they were preoccupied with construction difficulties. Now when these difficulties have been overcome siting has suddenly become a most urgent problem and time will be lost.

Coming to the last of my relatively minor points, I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether his Ministry could consider recommending to the small non-county boroughs who are housing authorities that they should examine the demand for flats. I know I have raised this point before, but I cannot believe that there is no demand for flats. Too many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, when flats are mentioned, think not unnaturally in terms of tenements built on disused land or on land adjacent to railway lines and that sort of thing, and I understand their prejudice. In the United States quite small townships go in for building flats. They can be and should be more economical to build, and they fulfil a need which would alleviate more quickly the housing shortage.

In any remarks that I have made about existing housing contractors I have been influenced to a great extent by the bankruptcy rate which persists in the industry. I made inquiries about relative bankruptcy rates in the building industry for five years 1934 to 1938 inclusive, and for the years 1948–49. I thought the House might be interested to know what the bankruptcy rates are, although of course the value of these figures must be governed by one important factor which I have not been able to ascertain, namely, the number of building companies in operation.

The average bankruptcy rate—that is to say bankruptcies including deeds of arrangement—for the years 1934–38 inclusive was 781 a year. In 1948 that figure had gone down to 371 and in 1949 to 273, which shows a marked reduction compared with pre-war. I must emphasise that those figures only mean anything if, in fact, the number of housing companies is comparable in the two periods—that is to say, before and after the war. I am told, and this was brought out in the Girdwood Report, that the industry is highly susceptible to bankruptcy, and I believe that this is a permanent danger with the small local housing authorities.

My appeal to the Minister is that a more responsible attitude should be adopted by the regional offices of the Ministry to advise local authorities on the suitability of potential contractors, and that they should specifically intervene where they believe that although a contractor has put in the lowest tender, nevertheless he has already got quite enough on his hands or that his financial position does not merit getting involved in a contract which may mean building in numerous small driblets over a wide area. It is in order to try and assist the smaller local housing authorities that I have brought this matter to the attention of the House today.

2.26 p.m.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

I have been a little surprised by some of the things which have been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow). They certainly have illustrated the difference in housing practice in different areas. For instance, in my area the Ministry of Health make the most careful investigations into the capacity of contractors to perform their contracts, and do not pass any contract or tender unless they are satisfied that at a particular time a particular contractor is in a position to fulfil his bargain.

Another aspect with which we have come into contact is this. It is not merely that contractors sometimes, for financial reasons or otherwise, are not in a position to perform their contracts. It was the case—it is less so now—that they did not want to perform their contracts. It suited them to have a housing contract in the background, which would enable them to keep their people employed, but that housing contract took second place to any jobbing contracts that might come along and which were more profitable. We have in Northampton a public works department which competed in tenders against local contractors, and the effect of that competition on the completion rates of the private contractor was quite remarkable.

Mr. Snow

I understand that my hon. and learned Friend is referring to a large county borough housing authority. Do I understand from him—I would like it confirmed—that in his county borough there has been no record during the past four years of bankruptcy or cessation of activities in the matter of these contracts?

Mr. Paget

No, I do not think that we have had any contracts abandoned through bankruptcy; I cannot recollect any. We have, none the less, had some that have been very slow.

The main point with which I want to deal is this. It perhaps concerns the question of flats, on which I am in entire agreement with my hon. Friend. During the recent housing debate we heard much less about the housing problem in the countryside than about the housing problem in the towns. That is because, among other reasons, the housing problem in the countryside is much less severe than it is in the towns. In the countryside there are fewer separated families because of the housing problem, and we find fewer families seriously overcrowded. That is not because there are more houses per head of the population in the country than in the towns; in fact, if we look at the figures it is the other way round. In country districts, there are, on the whole, less houses per head of the population than there are in the towns. But houses in the country are far better used. People in the countryside are less inclined to live alone, and thus we find the population better spread throughout the houses.

As I said the other day, more than half the houses in my constituency are occupied by two people or fewer, and that is a situation which is very common. There are about 5,500,000 families in this country—and by a family I mean a married couple with one or more children under 16 years of age—and there are something like 14 million houses. That means that at the moment there are about two and a half houses to every family. At the same time, however, there is a terrible and pressing demand for houses, such as we all come into contact with, from families who cannot get houses. The basic problem is the problem of misdistribution. That arises, primarily, from the Rent Restriction Acts. Rent restriction has made possession a vested interest. Anybody who has possession of a house will never vacate it, which means that the occupation of the existing houses becomes thinner and thinner.

I believe that we must overcome this difficulty, and I have certain suggestions to make as to the regulations which the Minister should bring in. In the first place, I believe that we should build far more flats, because for every flat we can build for an old person we can get a three- or four-bedroomed house vacated. Secondly, I think that local authorities ought to be given the management of rent-controlled properties; that is to say, they should, through requisitioning or whatever it may be, assume responsibility for both rent collection and repairs. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider this question carefully, although I do not suggest that he can give a reply now.

My next point is that if the local authorities assumed the management of such houses—and I have a Conservative local authority who are most anxious for these powers—they could, in the first place, prevent the safe of property with vacant possession as soon as it is vacated. The hope that property will be vacated makes landlords prevent tenants from making the best use of the property. If we can remove that threat, then I believe property would be better used.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

My hon. and learned Friend is, perhaps, overlooking one point in relation to the taking over of rent-controlled property by the local authorities. The present statutory allowance for repairs is not sufficient in most cases to cover the cost, whereas where a local authority takes over the property it is not bound by that particular restriction. Therefore, the rent may be forced up against the occupier.

Mr. Paget

That is exactly the point I am coming to. I believe that in taking over these properties the local authority ought to have the power to raise rents, and ought to exercise that power. It ought, at least, to raise the rents to the extent necessary to keep the properties in proper repair. I think it would be in the interest of the tenants for it to do so.

At the moment, there are a great many houses occupied by only one or two people because those people can afford not to take in lodgers. I think it would be only reasonable for a local authority to say to those tenants, "If you want to keep the house to yourself, then you must pay an economic rent for it. If you will let a portion of it, then, of course, you can easily recover that rent because there is the demand. But, in so far as you refuse to do that, then, of course, you must pay an economic rent." I believe that that would work better than merely giving back to the local authorities the letting powers. At any rate, something of this sort must be done.

In Northampton we have more separated families and more over- crowded families than we had in 1945. The misdistribution of houses is going on faster than the building of houses, and something must be done to stop it. New powers must be given to the local authorities by regulation to deal with that situation. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give this matter very careful consideration and to let us know what his Department are prepared to do about it.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. W. Robson-Brown (Esher)

I am sure that the House is intensely grateful to the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) for bringing this very important subject to the attention of the House today. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not being present during his speech, but I had the opportunity of talking with him last night, and I know the general line of his argument. There is no doubt at all that in rural districts, and in many other parts of the country, a grave situation exists due to the fact that small builders with little capital accept contracts to build houses for rural and urban authorities and then find themselves unable to complete those contracts. In too many cases they take too long, and in some cases they become insolvent before completion of the contract, thus throwing upon the local authorities responsibility for finding alternative contractors and, in addition, it seriously holds up their housing programmes.

Often small contractors are over-ambitious. They over-trade, taking on too many contracts without sufficient labour and supervisory staff to carry out the work. I understood from the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth that he was going to suggest that there should be some additional authoritative departmental investigation of contractors before they are allowed to accept contracts from rural and local authorities. I gather that his argument is that there should be an area controller or other officer, probably of the Ministry of Health, with power to sift out these people and separate the wheat from the chaff.

I feel strongly myself that that is merely increasing the bureaucratic system, and I am very alarmed at such a suggestion, that so much power should be put in the hands of one man in an area—virtually a power of life and death over a large number of businesses. There are so many imponderables in this matter. It would be very difficult for one man to be other than arbitrary in his decisions as to who was qualified, who was competent, who had the finance, and the like. It is in keeping with the views of this side of the House that what we want is less bureaucracy and fewer overhead costs. Nevertheless, we are with him in this desire for more efficiency. It may be and probably is the case that the bigger builders are not anxious to undertake the small projects of local authorities, especially those involving the building of only one or two houses in a rural district. There are good and sound reasons for this.

I feel that perhaps the best way—and possibly it is being followed by some local councils—is to copy the general method of the county councils. They have invited lists of contractors. That is to say, contractors are permitted—anybody, without restriction or restraint—to make application to the county councils to be placed upon their builders' lists. Then the county officials "vet" those companies, satisfy themselves as to their competence, satisfy themselves about their finances, and satisfy themselves—and this is a very important point—that they have the vital labour force. The councils work from these selective lists, invitations to tender are sent out, and the councils are fully satisfied that they will get fully competitive prices for reliable firms.

One of the weaknesses at present is the general belief of local councils that it is obligatory upon them to accept the lowest tender in any case. They fear they will lay themselves open to severe criticism if they accept any tender other than the lowest. I rather gather—and here I am not making a political point—that that is enforced upon them by the Ministry of Health. The Ministry—I think there is some reason for it—wants to be satisfied that if any but the lowest possible tender is accepted there are good and sound reasons for accepting it. Although, in accepting the lowest tender in an approved list, we may appear to be paying more money, I believe that in the final analysis we shall achieve two objects: build the houses in the quickest possible time—and the best type of house, built in strict accordance with the specification; and free ourselves from hold ups of any kind during the building of houses. That, in itself, I believe to be a very vital consideration.

There is a general feeling that the building industry is making excessive profits, and generally is holding the country to ransom in regard to houses. The evidence produced in the Debate contradicts that. I believe, from personal experience and from discussions with builders of all kinds, that the price cutters cut prices so much as to make it impossible to make any profit. They have not proper experience. They step out of their proper functions as local builders and take on contracts without adequate experience. They damage the reputation of the building industry, because they do not provide proper incentives and bonus schemes as they should.

Another serious aspect is that they do not operate proper training schemes and apprenticeship schemes, which we all, on both sides of the House, realise are very important if we are to increase the rate of building and constantly to improve the quality of building through the skill of the men in the trade. In industry there are many training schemes whereby young men are permitted a day a week off, and, in addition, get financial and other assistance, to qualify as charge-hands and foremen. These are not carried out by many of the small builders.

I am of this opinion, that the small local builders would be better employed in their traditional role and function of doing general repairs and maintenance to property in their localities. In addition, they should be encouraged to build one or two small houses at a time for sale or let. I believe there is a tremendous reservoir of skilled labour being wasted at the moment. There are thousands of these small builders. I think that the total number of the builders with five or more employees is about 40,000. A large number of these men are not building any houses of any kind today, and time and energy and materials are being used entirely on repair work. I am sure that there is waste here of labour and time.

Let this be realised, too—that there is more profit in this kind of house repair work and maintenance than there is in local government building projects because of price cutting. There is no incentive for these men at the moment to do otherwise. Give them encouragement and they will produce the houses. I believe it would be well if the Ministry of Health could devise a simple scheme whereby those men might be encouraged to build one or two houses, here and there, especially in the rural districts, where they are urgently needed.

It is mainly a problem of finance. In how many cases can these builders undertake the building of a three-bedroom or four-bedroom house and provide the finance without assistance from the local council? I do not think they can in many cases. The Minister of Health, in his speech on Monday night, stated that he had initiated a scheme whereby men could build houses and then sell them to the local authorities, and that that scheme had yielded an overall figure of 30,000 houses or thereabouts. I did not understand whether that was over the last calendar year or whether it was over a period of years.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

If he wants it, I can give the hon. Gentleman the information now—over the whole period during which this has been in operation; that is, from the end of 1946.

Mr. Robson-Brown

That reinforces my argument that in four years only 30,000 have been built in that way. I am confident that with an improvement in the arrangement, we should have not only 30,000 houses built in that way every three or four years but 50,000 per annum.

The primary interest and the main objective of all of us on both sides of the House is to provide for more homes for working-class folk who have not the finance to buy houses. In my humble opinion houses for rent should be priority No. 1 in any programme brought forward from either side of the House. I would make this qualification. It is not a crime for somebody who has saved and has put by sufficient money—and is prepared to go to a building society to make an arrangement—to buy his house. The opportunity for him also should be extended. I believe the Ministry should encourage the sale of houses by local councils at fair prices.

The other point I want to make is that over the whole field of house building there is grave financial restriction imposed on builders, large and small. If my memory is correct—and the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—some time ago, within the last 18 months, the Ministry issued an appeal to all local authorities to ease this financial burden, and to release moneys as quickly as may be. I am sorry that in practice that has not worked out as it should have done. In practice, many firms have to wait for quite considerable sums of money over two, and sometimes three years, before there is a final settlement. I believe that there would be a great deal more competition, and that more builders would meet the appeal made by the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth to take building contracts, if there were greater assurance that the money for the job would be paid much more promptly, and that in the matter of interim certificates and the like there would be much more generous treatment.

In the last few weeks much has been said about housing, and I do not want to add to that. Also, I do not want to add to the size of the bureaucratic machine that we have in the nation today or the handing over of any further powers to any person to whom people would have to go and give evidence—not to a court of law, but to perhaps one or two men who could give their judgments, in the main good, but some perhaps not as fair as they might be. Let the local government authorities themselves be the arbiters; let them work from the invited lists of reputable firms, sift out the undesirables, and ensure proper competitive prices. Do not always go for the lowest tender; be satisfied that they will do a good job and pay a fair price and I am sure that, in the end, we shall get the three things we want—more houses for working class people built more speedily, better houses and, in the final analysis, cheaper houses.

Mr. Snow

Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that a small rural authority would be able to attract tenders from a sufficient number of contractors? Is it not a fact that their main difficulty is to attract reliable people?

Mr. Robson-Brown

Since the hon. Gentleman and I spoke together last night I have sought further information, and the reason I was a little late in attending this Debate was because I was seeking information on that very point. I spoke to my own local authority about a project they have in hand; they showed me the list, and I have never seen such a rag-tag list of people competing.

I can assure the House that if builders of repute knew that these suggested arrangements were available to them they would come in, but they will certainly not waste their time submitting bona fide tenders only to find, after all the expense they have been put to—and there is considerable expense involved in every case—that some fly-by-night man who has just set up in business has put in a stupidly low tender which is accepted and they have wasted all their time. They would sooner keep out of it and not burn their fingers aid waste their time.

In the debate on housing the Opposition put forward many practical suggestions for speeding up house building and reducing costs without reducing standards. I am rather afraid that today many council houses come within the category of "jerry-built" for many reasons. I can give chapter and verse for that. I am satisfied that we have an enormous reservoir of know-how, and of experience, skill, building equipment and building labour which is today concentrated upon repair and maintenance work, but which could be directed to the building field.

In going round various council housing estates—and I must declare an interest in this matter, because I am the chairman of a small building construction company, which has built the modest number of 500 or 600 houses for various housing authorities in the London area—I have found that many tenants do not want the large gardens and land to the extent that is at present provided. I believe that we are rather wasting valuable land, in the first place in the national interest which has got to be paid for and afterwards maintained. In addition, as I have gone round, talking to many tenants, I have very often found that they would be quite happy, instead of having semi-detached houses, with a bit of bare land or a passage-way, to have interlocking houses; not the old terrace system but three, four or five houses together, giving the same accommodation and amenities but considerably reducing the overhead costs.

I have tried to touch very briefly on most of the points dealt with by the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth. In the main, I am in entire agreement with the objects he has in mind.

2.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

Although I believe the original subject for this Adjournment debate was the rather limited one of contractors for local authorities, it seems to have developed into a second general housing debate. I do not know that there is any subject under the general heading of housing which has not been touched on by one or other of the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken this afternoon. However, I hope to deal with most of the matters raised, though I cannot give any pledge that I shall deal with every one.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has raised what is, in fact, a very important general subject, and one upon which there may be a certain amount of misunderstanding which it is just as well we should have an opportunity of clearing up. First of all, he raised the general question of the method of selection of contractors. Let me say, first, that I am in agreement with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. W. Robson-Brown), that indeed the difficulty in many cases is, first of all, to get the contractors in local areas. To follow the remark of the hon. Member for Esher, it is undoubtedly, and must remain, the responsibility of the local authorities, who are, after all, the employing bodies and who are statutorily and in every other way responsible for the carrying out of the contract. It would be highly undesirable for there to be any undue interference with that responsibility.

I would emphasise, however, that in many rural areas, in particular, the difficulty is in attempting to get together a satisfactory team of building workers and building contractors to do the actual job. In many cases it is a question of not even being able to get very much in the way of competitive tenders. Sometimes, in rural areas in particular, it is extremely difficult to get any tenders at all, especially where there has been very little, and sometimes no, local authority building in those areas in the past. I know that sort of problem extremely well from some of the rural areas up in the North, and I know that the same problem exists in other parts as well.

It is true that the standing orders of local authorities usually, or very frequently, provide that the lowest tender should be accepted, but certain exceptions are made to that general rule. When the lowest tender has not been accepted it is our general practice in the regional offices of the Ministry of Health for our regional officer to approve it, provided there is some reasonable ground for the rejection of the lowest tender. We must remember all the time that one of our great anxieties must be to do what we can to keep down the tender prices. That is obviously vital for the cost of building generally. It is vital for the rents that have to be raid when the house is finally built. Therefore, it is not even enough for a local authority merely automatically to accept the lowest tender. There is also the need for local authorities to do their best to ensure that the lowest tender is as economical as possible.

A point brought out by several hon. Members was that it is sometimes true, because of the amount of work that a contractor may have on hand, or because of his financial standing, or for other reasons, that the lowest tender will not be accepted.

Mr. Snow

How are the small local authorities to know all about such matters if they have not some source of information?

Mr. Blenkinsop

They have plenty of sources of information of their own. Our regional officers are also willing to help in any way they can. Many sources of information are available to local authorities, particularly where they are dealing with local firms. Obviously, they have much more chance of knowing about those firms than have people who are some distance away from that locality. We are trying in every way we can to help. For example, if we know that a particular contractor who has been accepted by an authority is likely to have a very heavy load of work, we usually take an opportunity to bring this point to the notice of the authority and to ask them whether they have given sufficient attention to it.

Mr. Snow

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but if these matters are so cut-and-dried and well-organised as he seems to suggest, how does he account for the fact that many rural areas are now in a distressing condition not only of bankruptcy but of their work being held up to a very considerable extent.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am not saying that these matters are always cut-and-dried, but in some cases it is difficult to get a contractor to undertake work in local areas. There are also the difficulties to which my hon. Friend has referred. All that I am saying is that we are trying to keep them down to as reasonable a proportion as possible.

Mr. Robson-Brown

Unfortunately, rural areas have not big, highly-trained staffs of technicians and the like. Frequently it is the small men, local people, who are on the councils and who may sometimes have special information. What I think is required—to reinforce what the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) said—is that if the Ministry of Health——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member cannot make another speech. He has exhausted his right to speak. I thought he rose to put a question to the Minister.

Mr. Robson-Brown

I am sorry, Sir. I wished to ask the Ministry of Health to indicate to local authorities what are fair prices to pay for particular types of house.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I do not think that we needed to have so lengthy an interruption on that issue. All I am saying is that I do not want to see the regional offices of the Ministry of Health accepting responsibility for choice of contractor. It is true that they very frequently give advice, or bring to the notice of local authorities particular problems that may have arisen, perhaps with regard to finance, which may be in doubt—that is not a matter that we would have very much information upon—or, much more likely, the possible overloading of a contractor, where we think he may have too much work on hand already.

My hon. Friend also raised a question about what our regional offices can do to help in the general phasing of the work and seeing that supplies are brought forward to a site as effectively as possible. That is clearly the responsibility of the local authority. If one is thinking rather of the longer-term jobs and of the difficulties that arise, our regional offices are continuously at the service of local authorities. I find that local authorities welcome the co-operation that our regional offices give, whether in such problems as supplying cement, timber and bricks, or in regard to those of trying to recruit labour. I have heard from all parts of the country very glowing reports of the way in which our regional offices have gone out of their way to help to overcome difficulties. But supervision on the site is clearly a matter for the local authority and one in which our regional office should not intervene.

My hon. Friend suggested that we ought to consider the re-introduction of the use of our progress officers—the progress chasers—whom we employed in our regional offices. In one of our efforts at cutting down staff a short while ago, we cut out the housing progress officers attached to our regional offices because the pressing difficulties which had existed up till then in the delivery of materials had, broadly speaking, been overcome, although, as we know, plenty of individual cases still crop up. We thought that we could deal with those through the ordinary staffs at our regional offices. Broadly speaking, I am satisfied that that was a right decision.

My hon. Friend also raised questions about sites and clearance of sites. I well know the time which is often taken in securing planning approval in cases where there are obvious and very proper clashes of interest about the use of certain land. Perhaps a tragedy of the past was that too often land of very high agricultural value was used for building or industrial or other purposes when other land of less agricultural value might have been used. It is inevitable that discussions of this kind—essential discussions—very often take a long time.

As to the individual case which he raised, I do not know that the position is quite as black as he painted it. We only had note of the difficulty of Brindley village towards the end of October, 1949 —not several years ago—though I believe that the rural district council had some previous discussion with the area planning officer. So far as the question of subsidence and mineral workings is concerned, the National Coal Board advised the surveyor of the local authority as far back as July, 1947, of the potential danger to the site with which it was then dealing. I appreciate the difficulties which local authorities face—I know a good deal about them because in the North of England we have these difficulties with old workings as well as potential workings, just as does my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth—but we find that the National Coal Board do their best to give as much notification as they can of their programmes of development and new schemes. Prior approval of a site by our Department is no longer required. I am not now talking about planning approval, which is still required, but certification by the Department is not required provided that the local authority supplies a certificate saying that the necessary engineering works have been carried out.

I do not think I can deal with the many other issues which have been raised during the discussion because time is passing and I know that other subjects are to be raised in the House this afternoon. However, I should like to say that all the matters which have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House are ones with which we are well familiar in the Department. I can assure them that these matters are continuously under our consideration, but I am happy to think that our regional offices have sufficiently flexible arrangements to enable them to co-operate with the local authorities and give them the very best assistance they possibly can.

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